How to Pack a Bento Box Lunch for Kids

photo illustration of bento box with sandwich, apple, and other foods in it

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

Traditionally Japanese lunchboxes, called bento boxes, are stylish lunch containers with compartments to sort food. You can separate by color, texture, dish, or style. Bento boxes are now popular all over the world as a fun and convenient way to get kids to enjoy their lunch. 

If you have ever gone looking for bento box inspiration on social media, you have probably come across Jessica Woo (known as @sulheejessica on TikTok). Woo's TikTok is dedicated to assembling beautiful bento box lunches for her kids. Now, over 5.6 million followers watch along as she begins each video with a soothing, "Let's make some lunch for my kids."

While Woo has been making bento boxes for five years—her oldest is in fifth grade and has had bento box lunches kindergarten—she never set out to be a social media star. "I just like things that are aesthetically pleasing," she says.

She attributes her social media popularity to her attention to detail, which is evident in every section of the bento box she touches. Recently, she made a Korean rolled omelet with flowers punched out of ham and lettuce as leaves. "There is a nostalgic feeling people see when they see me making lunch," she adds. "It reminds them of that family dynamic."

But you do not have to be as artistic as Woo to make the most out of a bento box. While trendy, they are actually a straightforward yet creative way to encourage your kids to eat up. We have compiled some tips to help you implement the magic of bento boxes into meals for your kids (and maybe even yourself).

Pick Your Container

Above all else, it is important to find a bento box that fits in your child's backpack. Bento boxes come in both hard and soft varieties, and in a range of sizes. There are wide and flat bento boxes that resemble a traditional lunch box with dividers, as well as options with stackable compartments.

You can also buy a bento box that comes with an insulated outer bag and ice packs. This will help keep anything cold on the way to school.

Look for a style and brand that suits your kids' personalities and lunch tastes. Woo currently uses Bentgo Boxes. "They're very sturdy," she says. Brands like Austin Baby Collection, Planet Box, and Pottery Barn Kids offer unique options as well.

It’s easiest to pack only cold or only room-temperature items together so that you don’t have to worry about the transference of heat. If you want to include soups or other warm dishes, look for a bento box that comes with a thermos. Avoid using one that isn’t specifically designated for transporting hot liquids, as it could leak in transit. 

Pick Your Accessories

Now starts the fun! Many bento boxes come with forks and spoons. But you can also add chopsticks, tiny bowls for dressing and sauces, food picks, and notes to jazz up lunchtime. If you need even more subdivisions in the box, silicone baking cups are a popular option and come in many different colors and sizes. 

Plan Your Meal

Coming up with meal ideas is difficult for many parents. Woo feels it too, and actually created a spin-off Instagram account (@packmylunchmom) where she shares lunch ideas.

Some are more complex than others—she has made an entire Olaf out of rice and a curry featuring Pikachu—but Woo says she really doesn't have a method. While she tries to plan, that might mean using a lot of leftovers. "Most days I just see what I have on hand and what can be made quickly and easily," she says.

It doesn’t have to be complicated, though. The quickest things to pack in a bento box are deconstructed items such as sandwiches and tacos, where the ingredients are separated, says Amy Palanjian, mother, founder of Yummy Toddler Food, and recipe developer. This way, your kid can have fun putting them together themselves. “Homemade ‘Lunchables’ are some of our [family's] go-tos, and are a kid-friendly take on a charcuterie board with cheese, crackers, fruit, and veggies packed into a bento,” she says. 

While finger foods are part of bento box's appeal, so is a balanced meal. Make sure you are introducing lots of colorful foods that equal lots of nutrition. Woo always aims for a main course, veggies, fruit, and a sweet treat that her girls know to eat at the end of the meal.

Palanjian agrees that balance is best and that the bento box compartments actually help you visualize the nutrition of the meal. “The compartments make it easy to add a few food groups without having to think too hard about making sure everything necessarily works together,” she says. “Which means: It is perfectly okay to use a bento box to pack a random assortment of foods your kids like!” She usually tries to pack protein and fat to help her kids make it to snack time.

Add the Finishing Touches

If you want to get crafty like Woo, go for it, but it is by no means necessary. There is so much pressure to be “social media perfect,” but it’s simply not doable for many.

Simply having a bento box setup can be exciting for many kids. If you are looking for a little extra wow factor, Palanjian recommends using cookie cutters for shapes or adding sprinkles to foods that do not usually get them, like yogurt or cottage cheese.

Remember that kids are not often swayed by the perfect toothpick or most creative arrangement. “Most of the time, kids like eating out of lunch boxes so we don't have to do culinary backflips with the actual food,” Palanjian says. Focus on packing foods your kids enjoy, and you will always have a winning lunch.

By Lauren Finney
Lauren is an experienced print and digital content creator with an extensive list of clients whom she has served through editorial consulting, content creation, branding, copywriting, native content, branded content, and more.